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Faster-than-light back with surprising CERN discovery

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Only weeks since mathematicians proved it couldn’t be done, CERN boffins have put the smile back on sci-fi fans’ faces everywhere by discovering neutrinos travelling faster than light.

The astonishing results, reported by Reuters and others, came as the result of the OPERA experiment in which 15,000 beams of neutrinos were fired from Geneva to the Gran Sasso in Italy.

While the researchers are still advocating “prudence” in the face of these results, they believe their observations – in which the neutrinos made the 730 km journey 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have done – are accurate.

The difference between the neutrinos’ journey and light-speed is just 20 parts per million faster, in favour of the neutrinos. The researchers will be publishing their paper on arxiv.org today (23 September). CERN also plans a public Webcast to discuss the observations here.

Spokesman for the OPERA experiment Antonio Ereditato said the result is a “complete surprise”, while former Fermilab physicist Alfons Weber is quoted by AFP as saying the results still need to be replicated elsewhere. Earlier experiments have recorded faster-than-light neutrinos, but only within the margin of error for the experiment.

El Reg: As you might expect, the story has been greeted by “break the laws of physics” and “Einstein wrong!” headlines all over the world. This is both bad science and bad for science, and needs to be dealt with.

If relativity is “wrong”, which is how some people claiming the mantle of “science writer” are putting it, then how come all that stuff that depends on relativity (lasers come to mind) is still working even though neutrinos have apparently travelled faster than light? For the same reason that we can still use Newtonian gravity to predict stellar objects’ behavior: all theories are limited in scope.

The discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos is, if true, wildly exciting for physicists: it opens up a physics in which Einsteinian relativity doesn’t hold true, just as Einstein discovered a physics in which Newtonian gravity didn’t hold true. Einstein is still right within the boundaries of the universe he described; CERN’s found a new universe that Einstein didn’t describe.

Why is bad reporting bad for science?

Because it encourages a simplistic and ignorant understanding of science among the general public.

The reason science works is that it can be proven wrong, if you can do the experiment, replicate the results, and have your results worked over tooth-and-claw by your equals.

The neutrinos change the world not because they “disprove” relativity, but because they create a physics that Einstein didn’t describe. Einstein created a new physics to describe a world that Newton couldn’t; we now need a new physics, or at least new bits of physics, to describe a world that Einstein couldn’t (Yes: a real physicist could put this better than I can).

The test of a theory is that it can be falsified. It’s the last test, if you like, of real science. Only simpletons need to live in a world in which falsifiability somehow equals inadequacy. ®

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